(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
A story of my life in the military and how I learned to live without the sport I love.
A very interesting thing happened earlier this week.
A got home from work around 5:30. The wife and I were able to sit down and make dinner, no stress or rush, and then go over our schedule for the next few months or so. We then put the kids to bed and found ourselves, relaxed and not rushed, in bed before 10 p.m.
It was probably the first time that has happened for me in years. Literally. And I realized that the major reason for this was that, for the first time since 2007 or so, hockey had not been the major driving force in my life that day. And for the first time in a very, very long time -- I didn't miss hockey.
This wasn't the first time, either.
I joined the United States Navy fresh out of high school and graduated boot camp in the summer of 2001. This was just two years after the Stars had won the Stanley Cup and it was the first time in my life that I became separated from the team I loved. I had to learn about the loss to the Blues in the playoffs through a handwritten letter from my dad; this was my first exposure to being completely and utterly cut off from the sports world that I grew up absorbed in.
My career in the Navy was mostly spent on board the USS San Juan, SSN 751, a fast-attack submarine based out of Groton, Connecticut. From 2002 until 2007 I was a navigation electronics technician specializing in the quartermaster side of the job; essentially, I was a submarine navigation specialist.
I was very good at my job and I really, truly enjoyed what I did. Part of that came from my knowledge and security in knowing what I was doing, that I was considered an expert in my field and that I quickly rose up the ranks on the sub due to my hard work. The work itself, to me, was the easy part. Back then it was 100% chart work and voyage planning and lots and lots of math. Now it's all done through computers and essentially what I was great at became outdated, but that's not really part of this story.
Life on a submarine is not nearly as hard as people may think it could be, especially with the advent of laptops, tablets and iPhones that can be used for entertainment when underway. When I first started, I would take a giant book of about 350 CDs with me so that I could listen to music on my Walkman and have some form of escape from the constant work cycle. Then came portable DVD players and then laptops became something that everyone had, instead of just a handful of lucky guys on the boat.
The work schedule when out to sea is pretty rough. An 18-hour work day fit into a regular 24-hour day overall made time go by very, very slow until you really fell into the groove about three or four days out to sea. A typical time out to sea for a fast-attack is around five or six weeks with two or three weeks in between. That's just the average; there were plenty of times where we'd be out to sea for two months, come back for three weeks and then be gone for another six weeks.
I think, for the time I was on board, the San Juan was out to sea around 65% of the time. Because we never really broke down that badly (that came after I left) we had a relatively high rate of time at sea. We were just that good.
When people think of all that time away, especially in today's Navy, there is one thing that must be considered. There is no internet when a submarine is out to sea. Absolutely none. We are able to receive and send emails once a day if we're lucky; when we are on mission, that rate will typically go to email exchanges around once a week.
What this meant is that for a good six years or so, I was completely cut off from the world nearly two-thirds of the time. We received sports scores, once a week or so, through Reuters updates. We may have gotten quick recaps of big football games but all we ever saw of hockey was scores. That's it. Family members would send articles through email every now and then, but news of the Stars and updates on the season were far and few between.
This was a jarring change of life for me as someone who grew up a die-hard hockey and Dallas Stars fan. If I couldn't watch a game during the 1990s I had the earbuds in my ear listening to the sweet and soothing sounds of Ralph and Razor call late-night hockey while laying in bed. Suddenly I was living in a world where not only could I not see the games on a regular basis but listening to the games was not an option and getting scores was essentially my only source of news.
Remember, especially when I first got on board, the internet was not what it was today. There was no Gamecenter Live, there were no internet radio options and even back then keeping up with the team from afar was tough.
What this essentially meant was that for a good three or four years I was nearly completely cut off from the Dallas Stars. I became, for all intents and purposes, a Dallas Stars refugee. And here's what is interesting...I started to not really notice that much.
I'd go to games when I was back home on leave, sometimes, but I felt completely out of touch with what was happening with the team. I found out about the Nieuwendyk and Langenbrunner trade via email when I was in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. What's funny is that I became a regular at Hartford Wolfpack games and knew more about that team and the Rangers prospects than I did the Dallas Stars.
Go ahead, ask me about Junior Lessard. I don't know anything about him.
When the 2004-2005 season was lost, I was overseas in the Persian Gulf. While the hockey world was up in arms over that lockout, I barely even registered that NHL hockey was actually gone. In a way, the US Navy had trained me to live without the sport, league and team that I was so devoted to growing up in Dallas.
When we returned from a very long deployment in the winter of 2005, I purchased tickets to the Stars game in Boston. That just happened to be the big shootout win featuring Jussi Jokinen's incredible goal to win the game. That absolutely incredible game was my re-introduction to hockey, in a way, and I fell in love with the sport all over again.
And this time, when I fell I fell hard. This was the time of the rise of the blogs and the internet forums. Suddenly I had a way to keep up with the team and other fans all the way from Connecticut. I could listen to games on the internet from my office at home and occasionally catch a game that happened to broadcast nationally.
Does anyone remember trying to watch online highlights on the Stars website back then? The small video with low framerate provided me a valuable and pixelated glimpse at the team I was becoming more and more involved with all over again. Gamecenter Live came along a bit later, with me finding some possible way to get the games up on my television. I was a die hard fan once more, refusing to miss a single game once I transferred off the submarine.
In 2009, I launched Defending Big D.
Looking back, it has been a very interesting journey. I don't normally talk about this "blank" period in my hockey life, when I can barely remember some of the games that other fans find so memorable. I have to go back and look up who was drafted back then and who the prospects were; Loui Eriksson, to me, just came out of thin air.
And now I've come full circle, when another lockout has created yet another void in my hockey world. I'll be the first to admit that the loss of hockey so far this season -- and likely for the entire year -- has left me more than just a little sports depressed. After diving so deep into this sport over the past five years, after going from completely on the outside to on a first name basis with many in the Stars organization, the sudden loss of this sport has affected me in a very interesting way.
I find that, as each day passes, I miss it less and less. I find myself going back to the mindset I possessed during those lost years when I was out to sea -- when real life responsibilities took such a high precedent over the time I used to spend on hockey. Once again, I find myself in that boat.
So, what does this all mean? I don't know, exactly. As I stated a few weeks ago I'm not certain what will happen to this site if the season is canceled and even if they start to play again this season I'm not certain that things will ever exactly be the same again. It would take some time and we'd fall right back into the routine we enjoyed here over the past four years, but in my heart I don't think I will ever reach the level of commitment that I enjoyed while the sport itself was growing so exponentially since 2005.
What is sad is that I feel, if someone like me has started to feel so apathetic about this league, then the hordes of fans that the NHL is counting on flocking back once more are following the same mental path. I know for a fact that is what is happening.
Will those fans come back when the lockout is over? Most likely. I will. I'm not going to stay away from this team just because of the lockout.
But I doubt I will ever be the same again. The US Navy initially taught me how to miss hockey and now the owners and their lockout have perfected that mentality.